Death’s Power is Undone
Easter Sunday Sermon 2004| Rev. Rolf D. Preus| Mark 16:1-8
The mere murder of American civilians in Iraq would not have gotten the headlines that the recent atrocities produced. After all, Iraq is a dangerous place to be. People get killed there every day. It was the gruesome way the dead bodies were mutilated to the undisguised glee of spectators that hit such a deep chord of anger in our country. Death comes to us all, but is there not within every human heart a sense of the sacred that ought to be demonstrated by respect for the dead, at least in their death?
Death comes to us all, and when it does it calls for a moment of respect. It was respect that drew the women to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ dead body. It was more than respect. It was love. The holiest, purest, and most righteous man who had ever lived – indeed, the only perfectly holy, pure, and righteous man who has ever lived – lay dead in the grave. His death was to their eyes far more offensive that what happened recently in Iraq. His suffering was greater. His humiliation was deeper. The undisguised hatred of those who cried out for His blood was more intense. Those who loved Him the most were witnesses of a hatred so deep that it chilled them to the bone.
But they did not lack courage. The two Marys and Salome saw Him die. They watched from a distance. They, with Joseph of Arimathea, asked Pilate for Jesus’ body after He died. Pilate granted their request. Joseph was a wealthy man. They wrapped Jesus in linen and buried Him in Joseph’s tomb where no man had been buried before. This was to fulfill what Isaiah the prophet had written, “And they made His grave with the wicked; but with the rich at His death, because He had done no violence, nor was any deceit in His mouth.” (Isaiah 53:9) They rolled a huge stone over the entrance to the tomb. Later, Roman soldiers were posted to guard the tomb.
On Good Friday, just after Jesus died, the women weren’t afraid of Pilate under whose authority Jesus had been crucified. And early on Easter Sunday morning on their way to the tomb they weren’t afraid of meeting any Roman guards though they had seen how brutally the Romans had beaten Jesus before nailing Him to the cross. They were not afraid of anything. They were concerned only about how they would enter the tomb because the stone that blocked its entrance was too large for them to roll away. When they arrived they saw the stone had already been rolled away. They saw an angel, appearing as a young man wearing a long white robe. Seeing him, they were afraid. Then the angel preached the Easter gospel to them. He said:
Do not be alarmed. You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen! He is not here. See the place where they laid Him. But go, tell His disciples; and Peter; that He is going before you into Galilee; there you will see Him, as He said to you. (Mark 17:6-7)
Now they are afraid. They ran away trembling. They said nothing to anyone because they were afraid.
Does that make sense? They are not afraid to see Him die. They are not afraid to ask Pilate for His dead body. They are not afraid to go to His tomb to anoint His dead body so that He could at least receive in death the respect denied to Him in life. They are not afraid to face death. They are willing to bathe and to anoint a corpse. But the gospel, preached by a preacher wearing a white robe, scares them into trembling silence.
What an amazing thing! When their hearts are set on death, they are not afraid. But when they hear the gospel of immortality preached they are afraid.
Did you know that people often mistake the gospel for law? It’s true. The law is that doctrine from God that teaches us how we should live. The gospel is that doctrine from God that teaches us how Christ lived and died for us. The law makes demands on us that we cannot fulfill. The gospel makes no demands on us at all. The law shows us God’s perfect will for our behavior and condemns us for failing to do it. The gospel shows us that Christ has done what God’s will required us to do and that He has already born our condemnation in our place. The law shows us our sin and condemns us to death. The gospel gives to us our Savior and guarantees us resurrection to eternal life.
Still, there is something quite perverse within our hearts that will persuade us that the law and death are preferable to the gospel and life. St. Paul tells us that the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing. When we follow the natural feelings and desires of our hearts we run to embrace the law and death. We understand it. The law resonates with our conscience. Death may be cruel and hurtful, but at least he’s a familiar enemy. It is the message of the gospel that defies what humanity by nature believes about God.
The gospel tells us that Jesus was innocent and that He suffered for the guilty. But our natural human reasoning says this is terribly unfair. The gospel tells us that what we have seen with our own eyes is false, but that what the preacher in the white robe says is true. Our eyes have seen the dead body. Our hands have felt the cold skin. We are witnesses of death. The preacher preaches the resurrection to eternal life. Christ, who bore our sins and death, rose from the dead. Therefore we who died and rose with Him in Holy Baptism will through the faith of Holy Baptism rise to eternal life on the last day. This is the message of the gospel, but we cannot see it or feel it and so we doubt it. Since we cannot see it or feel it we begin to think that it is unreal. We, like the women at the empty tomb, want to live with what we can see and feel even when what we see and feel gives us no hope.
Consider the reality of death. We are not there at the grave with the women, but death is a part of our lives, is it not? If we are to judge by what we see, feel, sense, and experience we must conclude that death is the ultimate reality in our lives! Everyone living inside of this sanctuary this morning will die the common death of all men and there’s nothing any of us can do about it. That’s reality! That reality holds a power over us that we cannot resist. Death not only comes to claim us all, he reminds us of his coming every time we must witness the death of others, especially of those we love. To embrace death as if he is simply inevitable is to embrace hopelessness.
Death is bad. Life is good. God did not create us to die. He created us to live. The life that God created for us to live is a bodily life. He did not create us as disembodied souls. He created us body and soul. Had the women found the dead body of Jesus they would have found a dead Jesus. Had the women found what they were looking for they would have remained trapped in death for time and eternity. All of us would have been trapped with them. Had they found a dead Lord Jesus He would not have been the Lord after all but only a man and a rather pathetic and deluded man at that.
What they found was not a dead Jesus but an empty tomb and the words of a heavenly preacher wearing a white robe. The white robe of the angel symbolizes what Christ’s resurrection means for us. The color white is the absence of all color. Pure white symbolizes the absence of anything at all that is impure. It symbolizes innocence. The innocence comes from the One whose messenger the angel was. Jesus suffered death while bearing the sin of the world. He suffered because He was bearing the guilt, the condemnation, and the deep sorrow that our sins bring. Have you ever felt remorse? He felt it deeper. Have you ever felt guilt? It pierced Him more sharply. He was the sin-bearer, and He bore all the sin of all sinners. He remained pure. He kept His innocence. His innocence confronted our guilt. His righteousness did battle against our sins. His spiritual perfection overwhelmed our spiritual blindness and enmity. It was a life and death struggle, and life won.
The women were trapped by death. Their hearts were set on death. They wanted only the comfort gained by honoring that innocent life that had been swallowed up by death. What they found was death swallowed up by the innocent man, their God and brother Jesus. Listen to how Martin Luther describes Christ’s victory over death in the words of his Easter hymn:
But Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, to our low state descended,
The cause of death He has undone, its power forever ended,
Ruined all its right and claim and left it nothing but the name,
Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!
It was a strange and dreadful strife when life and death contended.
The victory remained with life; the reign of death was ended;
Holy Scripture plainly saith that death is swallowed up by death
In vain it rages o’er us. Alleluia!
We do not need to concede to death its power. Its power is undone. We will face death throughout our lives. This is true. Every death we confront will remind us that we are living in dying bodies. This is true. God’s holy word teaches us plainly that the wages of sin is death. This is true. And we know that the Catechism speaks truly as well when it says that we daily sin much and indeed deserve nothing but punishment. What can we do but agree and confess our sins to God, begging Him for mercy?
But then we must listen to the messenger from heaven dressed in the long white robe. He says to us, “You seek Jesus of Nazareth, who was crucified. He is risen!” This heavenly messenger of God did not tell the women that they shouldn’t be seeking Jesus of Nazareth who was crucified. They were just looking for Him in the wrong place. We don’t find comfort in dying. We find comfort in Jesus. There is no joy in death. He’s a mean and bitter enemy. But there is joy in the crucified and risen Lord Jesus Christ. It is the joy of knowing that our sins are washed away by His death and eternal life is guaranteed us by His resurrection. That is a joy that will remain ours in life and in death, because for Christ’s sake death is now the door to everlasting life.